It’s hard to believe that by 1981, the Rolling Stones were roughly two decades into their career. Harder still to believe is that 40 years later, they’re still kicking around, albeit with bassist Bill Wyman jumping ship in 1993 and drummer Charlie Watts passing away in August of this year. And while the band has turned in admirable – though increasingly less frequent – studio albums in those past four decades, it’s a reasonably popular opinion that 1981’s Tattoo You was their last fully-formed masterpiece. That landmark album, released on 24 August of that year, is now available as a super deluxe edition, complete with bonus tracks and an energetic 1982 live set.
Looking back on those 11 original tracks, it’s easy to see what the fuss was all about. The songs are strong, the performances energetic and inspiring, and the style is a decidedly meat-and-potatoes affair. By this point, the band experimented on recent albums with a variety of stylistic twists and turns, from disco (“Miss You”, “Hot Stuff”, “Emotional Rescue”) to reggae (“Cherry Oh Baby”) to satirical country (“Far Away Eyes”). Still, Tattoo You seemed to be as straight-ahead a rock album as they had made in years. Lyrically, it was also something of an outlier, with subject matter no longer obsessed with rock star life and deviant weirdos. It may be the most populist Stones album ever made.
Considering the high quality of the compositions and performances on Tattoo You, what’s most surprising about the album is that it was comprised primarily of previously discarded songs dating back as early as 1972, during sessions for the album Goats Head Soup. This mishmash of a collection resulted in an incredibly cohesive statement from the band, one that has not really been matched in the past four decades (I’m probably in the minority, but I happen to feel that their follow-up studio album, 1983’s Undercover, is also an incredibly strong and surprisingly diverse album, but I’ve learned to live with that highly unpopular opinion).
It’s impossible to hear the opening track, “Start Me Up”, with Keith Richards’ distinctive guitar riff, and not be transported to whenever you first heard that song or whatever random memories it conjures up. If you haven’t already heard it a million times, you’ve been living under a rock. But classic rock radio saturation aside, it’s a killer track that stands the test of time and announces from the very beginning of the album that the Stones – all well into middle age at this point – are still making vital rock and roll. The frenetic pace of songs like “Hang Fire” and “Neighbours” embrace an almost punk vitality, not just in the music’s rapid-fire tempos but also in the confrontational feel of the lyrics.
The lazy funk of “Slave” – dating back to 1975 – and the shuffling “Black Limousine” – salvaged from sessions for Some Girls in 1978 and featuring a co-writing credit from guitarist Ronnie Wood – shows the band haven’t lost their penchant for blues-based genres. Hearing Mick Jagger’s shrieking harmonica on the latter is almost an affirmation of their roots and consistent admiration for their early American musical heroes. Jagger even manages to sneak in some remarks about aging in the lyrics: “Those dreams are gone, baby / Locked away and never seen / Well now look at your face now baby / Look at you and look at me.” But they’re still unabashed horndogs if Richards’ lusty, neanderthal “Little T&A” is any indication.
Although Tattoo You is hardly a concept album in the strictest sense, it’s neatly divided into a rock and roll side (A) and ballad side (B). As a result, it’s front-loaded with its best-known, most crowd-pleasing songs. Apart from the gorgeous, luminous album closer, “Waiting on a Friend”, most of Tattoo You’s second half is relatively unknown to casual Stones fans, which is a shame since this side is so damn good and (thankfully) unperturbed by 40 years of excessive radio exposure.
Side two kicks off with the shimmering soul of “Worried About You”. Here, the falsetto Jagger used to quasi-comical effect on “Emotional Rescue” is given a more serious, gut-wrenching turn, followed by a soulful full voice turn in the final verses. It may be Jagger’s most emotionally charged vocal take in Stones history, and it’s buoyed by an inspired guitar solo from Wayne Perkins, an Alabama-born guitarist. He was auditioning for a slot in the band when he recorded the solo in the mid-’70s (there’s some fun Stones trivia for your next party).
Sleek, soulful tracks like “Tops” and “Heaven” may be the closest thing on Tattoo You to Jagger shoehorning modernity into the Stones’ blues-rock template. Still, they’re never excessive or self-consciously chasing a contemporary style (even though one can imagine Richards gritting his teeth and patiently waiting for his next Chuck Berry-inspired riff during these sessions). “No Use in Crying” sees the band using the kind of bare-bones, slow-dance soul that they sprinkled all over LPs like Black and Blue, Some Girls, and Emotional Rescue (the song was an outtake from the latter album’s sessions).
Then there’s “Waiting on a Friend”, which exists on a whole other plane. The unvarnished, raggedly poetic take on friendship that began during Goats Head Soup sessions features stellar backing from Stones mainstay Nicky Hopkins on piano, former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, and jazz legend Sonny Rollins – who also played on “Slave” and “Neighbours” – contributing iconic saxophone work. While the bro-leaning subject matter gets a little cringey at times (“Don’t need a whore / Don’t need no booze / Don’t need a virgin priest”), it also gets downright eloquent. “A smile relieves a heart that grieves” may be one of the most beautiful lines Jagger has ever sung. As the song winds down and Rollins’ sax goes into a blissful stratosphere, thus ends what may be the Stones’ final masterpiece.
But since this is a “Super Deluxe” edition, there’s plenty of bonus material past the album proper. A rarities disc titled “Lost and Found” gathers up nine recently unearthed recordings, a mixed bag but overall fun to discover. “Living in the Heart of Love” is a standard Stones riff-fest, nothing to write home about but still a song that would fit in nicely on the original album. The same goes for the frenetic “Fiji Jim”, which bops along like an Exile on Main Street version of “Neighbours”.
There are some intriguing covers mixed in with the original compositions: the Chi-Lites’ “Trouble’s a Comin'”, a barn-burning take on Jimmy Reed’s “Shame, Shame, Shame”, and an oddly straightforward, innocuous version of Dobie Gray’s smash hit “Drift Away”. But one of the most interesting and oddly infectious bonus tracks here is an early reggae version of “Start Me Up”. The song, abandoned time and time again for years before the now-famous version was recorded for Tattoo You, works surprisingly well with a more casual reggae backbeat and is hardly a massive diversion from the 1981 take.
Finishing out the deluxe set is a two-disc recording of a 1982 live set from Wembley Stadium. Anyone familiar with the Stones’ 1982 live album Still Life – or the Hal Ashby concert film Let’s Spend the Night Together – will be familiar with this particular live incarnation of the band. Mixing new and old hits with some exciting covers – “Chantilly Lace”, “Going to a Go-Go”, “Twenty Flight Rock” – these recordings are your typical live early ’80s Stones experience. It’s hardly the kind of revelatory set found on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, but the band are in a lively mood and are playing well. The real meat of this special edition are the 11 original songs, with the bonus tracks providing some interesting additional context.
In a 1995 interview, Mick Jagger expressed a kind of oblique admiration for Tattoo You. “I think it’s excellent,” he said. “But all the things I usually like, it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have any unity of purpose or place or time.” The Stones would go on to make more great music following Tattoo You, but this was really the last truly iconic album they would ever make. It rocks, grooves, spits in your face, begs your forgiveness, and sounds like nothing else made at the time.